India has long maintained the upper hand in lobbying for a pro-India unification with Kashmir in Washington. Supporters of the Indian position often wield significant clout by making substantial campaign contributions to the members of Congress. On the other hand, Pakistan seems far behind in pushing for a pro-Pakistan stance in the U.S. capital, which is often complicated by the bumps in U.S.-Pakistan relations in recent years. However, the recent discovery of Pakistan’s decades-old secret efforts in funneling money from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to tilt policy in the U.S. Congress and the White House provides a twist to the story.
The executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit group Kashmiri American Council (KAC), Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, together with his aide Zaheer Ahmad who mainly works in Pakistan, has been receiving funding from ISI to “buy” the hearts of U.S. Congress members in the form of campaign contributions to promote the cause of self-determination for Kashmir—a region over which both India and Pakistan claim sovereignty. The grand strategy of the KAC is to offset the Indian lobby by targeting members of Congress who work on foreign affairs with private briefings and events that would draw media attention.
According to an FBI estimate, the group received up to $700,000 per year from the Pakistani government. Prosecutors said that Ahmad recruited people to act as straw donors to the KAC when the money was actually from the Pakistani government. Federal Election Commission records indicate that under Fai’s leadership, at least $30,000 has been donated to campaigns and political parties in the United States, including a $250 donation to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
The biggest individual beneficiary is Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and reportedly received about $10,000 since 1997. Burton, founder of the House Kashmiri caucus, has traveled to Kashmir on multiple trips sponsored by the KAC. He is an outspoken advocate for the Kashmir issue and has appealed to Presidents Clinton and Obama to get more involved in attempting to mediate a settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. In 2003, because of his overly staunch pro-Pakistan stance, Burton could not win the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on South Asia.
According to FBI, Fai coordinated the KAC’s activities with ISI handlers and often communicated in coded emails.
“You are aware that we have been working together for the cause for over a decade now,” wrote Fai in an email to a senior ISI official in 1995. “All these years, I have closely worked with you and others who came before you. It has taken us much time, energy, dedication, strategy and planning to achieve our common cause.”
The Justice Department also revealed that the Pakistani government had been approving speakers and giving Fai talking points to highlight at the annual Kashmir Peace Conference at the Congress, which Fai is best known for organizing. Fai was arrested Tuesday under charges of being an unregistered agent of a foreign government and faces up to five years in prison if convicted. The Obama administration has decided to return the $250 to the KAC, and Burton will transfer the donations he received from the KAC to the Boy Scouts of America.
This incident complicates the already strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the wake of the U.S. unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the Obama administration’s declaration of a massive reduction in aid payments to Islamabad. The marriage between the U.S. and Pakistan is indeed a bad one, and it is getting worse. However, divorce is not an option. Despite a series of recent crises, Washington and Islamabad still need each other in the struggle against the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. In the meantime, the United States cannot achieve success in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help. The lobbying scandal is an embarrassing affair, but the two sides must now work even harder to save the marriage.
Shiran Shen is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.